World of Goo

Puzzling through the World of Goo

… let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

– Genesis: 11: 4 (King James)

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.

– Jonathan Swift

Stuck on you; I’ve got this feeling down deep in my soul that I just can’t lose; Guess I’m on my way …

– Lionel Richie

 

‘World of Goo’ is a 2-D construction-puzzle video game that has been rapturously and universally lauded for its originality, charm and simplicity since its 2008 release. And deservedly so.

Produced by a pair of independent game developers under the name 2D Boy, (Ron Carmel, credited for programming and production, and Kyle Gabler, single-handedly responsible for design, story, art and music), World of Goo is conceptually somewhat similar to the 1990s game Lemmings. The basic objective is to guide a set number of animated goo-balls across hazardous terrain to the relative safety of a remotely located drain-pipe exit. This is accomplished by using the goo balls themselves as building material – dragging and dropping them to construct, as efficiently as possible, wobbly towers, bridges and scaffolding that can be used as pathways by their comrades on their way to be sucked up at their destination.

The resulting structures are inherently unstable and need to be carefully balanced and reinforced so as not to teeter over and collapse, sending goo-balls tumbling to their deaths. Gravity isn’t the only threat, however. The environments are loaded with an impressively imaginative variety of lethal obstacles, such as rotating machine gears, spikes, swamps, fire, high winds and rough seas, that must be successfully negotiated, avoided or built around.

Within this relatively simple premise, World of Goo manages to be constantly humourous and inventive, challenging the player with just enough frustration to create a palpable sense of accomplishment when a level is completed, and the enthusiastic goo-balls are safely sucked on their way.

 

 

World of Goo is set in a series of impossible landscapes that could be described as a stylistic melange of the cartoon surrealism of Dr. Seuss and the dreary, post-apocalyptic world of Terminator, aptly supported by a cinematic sound design featuring whimsical accordions, dramatic choirs and pulsating synth loops.

Counteracting these dark, absurdist environments are the relentlessly chipper goo-balls themselves. The game begins with one basic type – an infectiously cheerful black tar ball, that becomes rigid after being placed, and cajoles the player with happy, semi-coherent chirps of “can I go?”, “pick me!”, “hooray!” and “yippee!” Even the gurgles of death they emit as they inevitably fall from collapsing structures are endearing.

As you traverse the progressively more-challenging levels, new goo-ball species are constantly being introduced, each intelligently designed with special abilities (and charmingly matched psychological profiles) that enable new ways to interact with the environment and support their fellow goo balls to their destination.

For instance, the yellow, spiky goo-ball who can stick to surfaces and used as a grappling hook is introduced as being ‘emotionally clingy and socially awkward’, whereas the skull goo-ball, who is impervious to spikes and useful as a safety buffer, is described as a sulky goth teenager around whom it is best to act normally.

The variety of goo-balls and their unique characteristics (multi-use, exploding, dripping, flammable, inflatable, fish-like, laser-like…) is impressively relentless. Though the goo-balls are presumably androgynous, a distinctly female character is introduced in the form of a giant, vain, make-up slathered female goo-ball head – which must be exploded to reveal their normally proportioned female goo-ball contents. In a game filled with so much wonder, oddities such a softy misogynistic undercurrent go unquestioned in the engaging quest to think through and complete each strikingly original level.

 

 

The over-arching narrative of World of Goo is fittingly semi-coherent, filled with absurdist humour, and decidedly anti-establishment.

The player receives instructions by means of the familiar video game paradigm of clicking on question mark signs posted throughout the game landscape, which, in World of Goo, are signed by an otherwise unseen narrator calling himself ‘the Sign Painter’, who, in welcome contrast to the happily cooing goo-balls, writes with an irreverent, sardonic wit, and gives the player cynical asides such as “I remember when I used to have hope and ambition.”

The goo-balls themselves have no such inclination towards independent thought, and seem to be in the service of a massive industrial entity known as “World of Goo Corporation”, and within this framework the story lines of the levels include spoofs of consumerism, the energy crisis,
overhyped corporate-product launches, shadowy and unethical global corporate culture, the youth-obsessed cosmetics industry, energy drinks, as well as the internet, information technology and pretty much all things digital.

A further meta-narrative is provided through “cut scenes” – short clips interspersed throughout the game between levels and chapters. These are rendered in a distinctly rough, amateurish, yet unassuming and honest drawing style, and give the game its most bizarre and gently sexist aspect. For instance, customers obsessively awaiting the latest World of Goo Corporation product release are depicted as silly, consumer-addicted women. This new product is revealed to be Product Z – effectively breaking down that ye olde post-modernist meta-wall by teasing the player with the promise of adding a third dimension to gameplay. In one of many charming IT gags, this new 3D version of World of Goo is then declared to unfortunately be “incompatible with the world.” We are then endearingly advised to “contact tech support”, which leads into the hilariously entitled Information Superhighway chapter, rendered as a wonderfully-retro neon-green-on-black vision of the future, with appropriately Tron-like goo- balls firing themselves into digital orbit.

In an echo of the conclusion to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, World of Goo Corporation is finally defeated in the game’s narrative climax, which involves transcending beyond an old computer desktop window interface by physically piling up applications and games to reach the MOM computer, an old, spambot with strong maternal instincts and an obsession with cookies. A humourous chatbot conversation touching on online privacy and the lack thereof ends with an agreement to simultaneously undelete every email message ever trashed and send them all at once to everyone at the World of Goo Corporation, thereby unleashing its total destruction.

The ensuing armageddon is prefaced by a retro 1990s AOL-like “New Mail!” message, before a massive explosion obliterates the World of Goo Corporation headquarters, leaving little more than a smoldering sign, proclaiming the typical corporate banality: “We’re all in it together”.

 

 

World of Goo? I’m sure it’s fun, and the reviewers certainly loved it, but surprised to see up so high.

– Peter Moore, head of EA Sports, blogging his reaction to World of Goo’s placement as the #10 top game of the year 2009 by Eurogamer.

You can’t stop progress.

– World of Goo Corporation

Given that the game was independently produced on a tiny budget by a pair of former employees of the gaming giant EA Sports, the narrative can be readily interpreted as a humourous satire of the contemporary blockbuster-driven video game industry. The central antagonist is the powerful “World of Goo Corporation”, which functions not only as a gentle mockery of their former employers, but also as a self-deprecating metaphor for the developers own ambitions as well as the challenges they must have overcome during the process of building the game itself.

More broadly, the illogic bureaucracy of large corporations is also clearly a target of the game’s satire, and the always chipper goo-balls can be read as quirky representations of a generation temporarily floundering in a low-opportunity bureaucratic nightmare of nonsense, and yet nevertheless resilient, optimistic and confident, continuing to strive for the seemingly ridiculous goal of creative independence. Ultimately, World of Goo is the story of Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler themselves: Having survived the soul-crushing dullness of corporate life only slightly cynical (and with a pronounced appreciation for the absurd), these dedicated creatives were able to harness the power of the open-source, do-it-yourself movement and now find themselves at the head of the independent game development company poised to climb ever upward in the World of Goo.

 

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